Morocco's Largest Arabic Newsweekly to Fold Under State Pressure

Nichane Sex in Morocco fullsize.jpgThe publisher of Nichane, the most widely read Arabic-language newsweekly in Morocco, is set to announce today that the provocative publication will close its doors due to insurmountable pressure from the country's restrictive monarchy. While the Moroccan government does not directly control media, it often pressures critical or counterculture outlets, particularly Nichane, by imposing fines, imprisoning journalists, destroying thousands of print copies, and sometimes sending police to shut down publication altogether. Nichane ultimately succumbed to a years-long advertising boycott led by the Omnium Nord-Africain Group, a massive holding company that dominates much of the Moroccan economy and is run by the royal family.

Ahmed Benchemsi, the award-winning Moroccan journalist who publishes Nichane and has written for Newsweek and the Los Angeles Times, says that advertising companies never tried to keep the boycott a secret. "They tell our advertising agents, 'We had received a direct order not to give you advertisements,'" he said. Because Moroccan businesses must deal frequently with the state-run ONA Group, none were willing to violate the boycott. Without advertising revenue, Benchemsi says he had no choice. "It's a matter of survival."

Benchemsi also publishes TelQuel, the country's most-read French-language newsweekly. Nichane was launched in 2006 as an Arabic version of TelQuel, which has generated international attention since its 2001 launch for its liberal secular ideology and its editorial mix of sex, religion, and political criticism. TelQuel and Nichane earned their wide readerships by provoking conversation in a society with many taboos and by pushing boundaries in a region not known for free speech. The magazines, which flaunt bold covers that could be called lewd even by American standards, confront controversial subject head-on, and spare criticism of no one, will look immediately familiar to anyone who has ever read a New York City tabloid.

Nichane provoked the monarchy's ire with such cover stories as "Sex and Homosexuality in Islamic Culture," "Inside Moroccan Secret Services," and "How Moroccans Joke About Islam, Sex, and the Monarchy." Benchemsi himself was briefly imprisoned in 2007 after publishing an editorial questioning King Mohammed VI's leadership. In December 2009, Moroccan police destroyed 100,000 copies of Nichane in retaliation for printing the first-ever approval poll of King Mohammed VI. Run jointly with Le Monde and professional polling firms, the survey reported 91 percent approval, which Benchemsi swears is legitimate. However, despite even the high approval, state officials announced that the poll was an insult and a crime because the king is above polling.

TelQuel, though also targeted by the advertising boycott, will continue to publish. Because many French-language advertisers are based outside of Morocco, the boycott has had a limited effect on TelQuel, which Benchemsi says remains profitable. I asked him whether Nichane's closing will cause him to reconsider the editorial policies that contributed to the newsweekly's demise. "When you see your colleagues harassed, when you're harassed yourself, when you have to close a newspaper, I have to tell you its painful," he answered. "Before writing anything you have to think about it twice. We are more careful now than we were four years ago." But, he added, "Of course we're still critical, we're still independent."

When asked why the government did not simply shut his doors, Benchemsi replied, "You know, Morocco is not North Korea. They can't just do whatever they want. They have to preserve some kind of facade. Appearances of a free press are preserved." Morocco is widely perceived in the West as one of the Arab world's freest for journalism and speech, and Benchemsi readily concedes there is truth to this. The country has attracted significant foreign investment on this image, including the World Economic Forum (known for its annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland), which will convene in Morocco later this month.

As the Moroccan government cracks down on press freedoms, it risks repelling some of the foreign investment capital that has helped to keep it one of North Africa's stablest nations. But this is not only a Moroccan concern. In the Arab world, journalists are increasingly the vanguard of liberal, secular grassroots movements. The U.S. has struggled for years to steer Arab societies away from militant religious conservatism, something that authoritarian regimes have utterly failed to do. Unlike the autocracies that try to oppress conservative movements, which usually only inflames them, liberal grassroots replace them entirely by offering young Arab people a different way to look at the world and their place in it. The U.S. understands this, which is why it has dumped over $500 million into Al-Hurra, a liberal secular Arabic TV station that is watched by virtually no one. Meanwhile, legitimate, influential, and widely read liberal secular outlets like Nichane are closing because they cannot stand up to the state on their own. It's unlikely that anyone at the U.S. State Department will nudge Morocco to ask that the advertising boycott be lifted. That's too bad, because after nearly a decade of sacrificing U.S. lives and resources, it would be a nearly cost-free opportunity for to further our generation-long mission of establishing strong relations in the Arab world.

Image: A 2007 cover of Nichane, featuring a characteristically provocative cover story on "Sex in Morocco."